Lyndell Montgomery sprawls across a blanket on the lawn. Her scruffy black mohawk and the tapestry of tattoos that cover her arms and legs contrast with the tall, leaning maples and rustic barn. Off-stage, this is the bassist’s favourite place — a peaceful garden outside her little red and white farmhouse in the town of Dalkeith, Ontario.
Lying back, her eyes on the blue sky, Montgomery is telling her story. It’s the story of how a musician, best known for her long-term partnership with folk-singer Ember Swift, ends up knee-deep in organic soil and rhubarb. The touching part, the part that left this writer deeply affected, is Montgomery’s stubborn desire to stay in this place that has become her home, despite the huge changes that have shaken her world in the last year.
It was more than a girl meets girl story. Montgomery, who was born and raised in BC, moved to Toronto in her early 20s, meeting Swift at a show.
“I had probably only been in Toronto for a month at the time, so she was among some of the first people I connected with. She was mostly a solo artist then, but was looking for people to play with her here and there. Here and there simply morphed into always being here and there, together.”
Thus began the long and beautiful musical conversation that was Ember Swift and Lyndell Montgomery.
Together they created and released nine studio albums and one live album, touring internationally — from festival to folk festival — playing their way into the hearts of girls, queers and the socially conscious, who responded to Swift’s environmental messages and Montgomery’s powerful energy on bass and violin.
“How to describe 12 years of making music with a person? Intuitive. We know each other’s nuances, preferences, quirks, strengths and weaknesses. We’ve seen some amazing and bizarre places, people, venues and animals. And we came to believe that everything is possible.”
Toronto was home base for the two touring musicians for many years. But it was Montgomery, looking for a change, that led them to consider purchasing a country property. It’s not all that surprising once you learn her grandparents are still farming their 400 acres on Vancouver Island.
“It just kind of fell together. I was looking at properties between Ottawa and Montreal. There were all these abandoned farms. But when I saw this, it was instant. I wanted it before I even saw inside.”
As far as farms go, at just over an acre the property is small. But it was just big enough for everything Montgomery had envisioned. With six raised beds, a couple of fruit trees and an amazing abundance of perennials, it was a homesteader’s dream.
Montgomery, the blood of generations of gardeners running through her veins, leapt into her new project. Any time they were home from touring, she could be spotted organising the perennials, researching companion planting (and diligently planting her tomatoes with her onions) while following the gentle, environmentally conscious philosophy of biodynamic farming.
Montgomery gestures at the white farmhouse with the red roof.
“It wouldn’t be so hard to go off-grid here. It’s a very simple house, heated with a wood stove. We have a large cistern which we could convert for greywater. And it’s always really windy here! A wind turbine could easily support our system. Plus, I don’t use a lot of energy. I’m on the road a lot, and super energy conscious when I’m here.”
For a time, life at the place Montgomery calls Far Far Away was idyllic for the two musicians. But things changed. Swift, an Asian Studies major, fulfilled a lifelong dream, travelling to China. Her first trip was in 2007. She’s returned twice since.
“Its official,” Swift wrote on her Myspace page. “China has my heart.”
Swift returns from this third trip to play a handful of shows with Montgomery in June. After that, there are no dates booked. And all signs point to Swift returning to the country that has utterly enchanted her.
“Why did Ember go to China?”
Her voice heavy with the weight of a question she has wondered endlessly, Montgomery pauses.
“You’d have to ask her,” she shrugs. “What can you say when someone says that they have found the portal into a life that exists elsewhere? What else is there to say other than ‘okay?'”
With Swift across the world following her heart, Montgomery was left with no job, a mortgage to pay and a deep feeling of loss.
“I went through some really dark times.”
Unsure of which path to take, Montgomery considered leaving music entirely, going so far as to enrol in Algonquin College’s carpentry program in Perth. Then two things happened. The first was the passing of time. The second was Westfest director, Elaina Martin.
“I love Elaina. She has this ability to make you feel so confident, like you can do anything. I can’t believe I agreed to do this. It’s crazy. Somehow she convinced me it was my idea.”
She’s referring to her upcoming set at Westfest. Montgomery has performed with musicians other than Swift, but always as a sideman. This time she plays solo. When I ask what she has planned, she looks at me like I’m crazy. She laughs, shaking her head. So far it looks like she’ll be winging it.
“I come from a long line of preachers,” Montgomery jokes, “so I have a lot to say. Hopefully there’ll be some music in there. But I’m going to do it, dammit. I’ve done the same thing for almost 13 years. Am I nervous? Yeah, I’m nervous. But this is life. I’m just going to go up there and I’m just going to be. I’m not going to plan it out.”
Montgomery bursts into laughter.
“And I’m seriously hoping the universe is going to deliver!”
What the commitment ensured was that Montgomery kept her mind, even just partially, on music. Just enough to encourage her to accept one other solo gig, the Boston Dyke Festival, the night before her 25 minutes at Westfest.
While, Montgomery isn’t entirely sure about her future, what she knows is that she loves to play, that her first choice is music. Is it possible these two upcoming gigs may be the lifeline pulling her back from a sea of uncertainty?
“This was a really important decision but I think I’ve decided to give it a go. I’ve never had a completely freelance experience, musically. This experience is going to pop my complacency bubble. It’s going to kick my ass is what it’s going to do. But I have to go it solo, be a gun for hire, so to speak. There are so many people I’d love to play with. How will I know unless I try? I’ll always be wondering if I don’t try.”